The Poet On My Shoulder

Forest Path | Bhavana Society, High View, WV |

“When Norsemen heard thunder,
did they seriously believe
Thor was hammering?

No, I’d say: I’d swear
that men have always lounged in myths
as Tall Stories …”

Excerpt, “Archaeology,” by W.H. Auden

I have decided I don’t need
a shelf of poets in my life, right now.
One, two or three—will do.

But who? One’s for certain.
I travel with him these days, tucked in
a pocket of my brown rucksack.

A slim, hardback first-edition
of “Thank You, Fog: Last Poems,”
by W.H. Auden. Purchased off

a shelf on the 2nd floor (or the 3rd?)
of The Strand in New York City,
just this January.

These are his last published
poems (1972, says a frontispiece), before he
died September 29 in 1973.

I was newly turned 16 that year. Hardly
knew his work except for a snippet of
a poem, recorded in a journal,

likely before my 20th birthday:
“Clear, unscaleable, ahead
Rise the Mountains of Instead,

“From whose cold cascading streams
None may drink except in dreams.”

I can’t recall where I first loved

these lines of pathos. Perhaps an
English class at the university in Oxford,
the other one, in Ohio,

buried in a maze of cornfields,
where John Weigel taught us Woolf and Forster,
and James Joyce. Or it may have been out-of-school.

I read widely as a teen: Marquez, Borges, C.S. Lewis,
Blake. I borrowed Auden’s lines for a song I wrote in Rome,
the only ever written outside my country’s borders.

When I took my son and his same-aged cousin
on a two-week tour of mid- and upper Italy, to see Santana
in Verona, in its still-working coliseum,

granite seats worn slightly concave, by
more than a thousand years of asses.
The song takes Auden’s title for its own.

“The Mountains of Instead” is a lament, of sorts,
for dreams dashed, yet your life recovered amid
the ruins: “I built a castle/ It looked so grand/

the ocean turned it/ back into sand.” One of,
I feel, my better lines. But I was speaking
of poets and how many I require these days.

These days of cataracts of social prose. The fits and
starts and tantrums, spittle-flecked rage and
plaintive calls for decorum, the howls of rage and

profane posts answering profane pols. “Great
said Pound, “is language charged with
meaning to the utmost degree.”

So, the better poet, and surely the great one, is
a tonic. A digestif for the the stomach, upset by the
ten thousand stories recalling how

the worst of humans behaved in the lag between
dawn’s first light and last dawn’s red glare.
I need only a few poets in my bag, whose

meter works for me. Whose meaning is not
so abstruse their tangled, tortured cleverness
makes this reader feel too dense or dull. Not to say

this reader wishes to go unchallenged. He just wishes
to be on the same page. Of the same realm
of sense, in the self-same cosmos.

So, for one—Auden. Not all of whose meaning
I gather. But enough. And the meal, the fixings
of his poems, call for second helpings, maybe thirds.

That’s why
he hitchhikes in my bag. Plus,
with delight, I see, like me,

he often parses out his words in
triple lines. A friendly meter, a gallivant
which I find welcome. Just enough

domestication—yet not too much!—
to fit the work at hand. The archaeology,
so to speak, of my spadework, into

the buried levels of civilization,
disasters, wars, the village middens, and
long-lost treasures that may surface

hidden just beneath—
or far deeper yet—
the surface of our upturned soil.

Pendle Hill, Pennsylvania, feb21.2020

Take a listen to “Mountains of Instead,” featuring Douglas John Imbrogno and Albert Frank Perrone on vocals and guitar, and Marylin McKeown on percussion and harmony vocals, and Bob Webb on cello, from the CD “You Can’t Be Lost,” by The BrotherSisters | available for purchase as a separate track or the full CD at

RELATED: Other People’s Poetry Break: W.H. Auden

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